Can China afford to eliminate pollution?

Posted March 3, 2015 by jsmyth
Categories: China, Politics

It’s very good news that so many Chinese are so concerned about pollution (Google “Chai Jing documentary”) but I’m worried that under their present system, they have no way to really change it. I think the problem isn’t just political corruption or insufficient transparency: it’s that the level of debt throughout the society is already too high. The more companies control pollution, the lower their profits. The more the government tries to eliminate pollution, the more it’ll spend. But over the past 7 years, China’s debt level has already nearly quadrupled, so if it slows the economy to take on the pollution problem, will it afford to pay off its debts? Using debt to power an economy is like running on a treadmill whose speed you can’t adjust. Once you slow down, you fall. I still think China has to face the pollution problem (I refuse to live there because of it) but if it really wants to do that, I fear it’ll have to go through a financial crisis and recession first.

這麼多中國人這麼關心環境污染是一件非常好的消息,可是我擔心在現在的制度下他們無法真正改變這個情況。我認為,問題不只是政治腐敗或不夠透明,而是全社會中負債額度已經太高。公司越控制污染利潤就越少,還有政府越消除污染要花的錢越多,可是這七年中全國負債額度已經漲了三倍,所以如果讓經濟緩慢以面對巨大的污染問題,還還得起負債嗎?用負債來推動經濟就像用無法調整的跑步機,你一緩慢就倒下來了。我還是認為中國需要面對污染問題(我個人因此就千萬不要住那邊)可是真得要做的話,恐怕要先經過一次金融危機與經濟衰退。

Ask Haruki Murakami — Translation of the Question Form

Posted January 16, 2015 by jsmyth
Categories: Uncategorized

askharuki

The site for Haruki Murakami’s advice column is open until Jan. 31 and while it’s in Japanese, he’ll also take questions in English. Want to ask him something but don’t know Japanese? Don’t worry, I’ve translated the fields for you:

Go here to write your question: https://reg31.smp.ne.jp/regist/is?SMPFORM=thl-nikdp-d6cb7b3742b99baef77969bc3627fea3

The ten fields are:

1. Pen Name (anonymity is ok)
2. Gender: Left Bubble=Male, Right=Female
3. Age
4. Job
5. Question Category: This is multiple choice and there are 4 options: (1) There’s something I’d like to ask or discuss with Mr. Murakami (2) There’s something I’d like to say to Mr. Murakami (3) Place(s) I like or dislike (4) About cats or the Yakult Swallows [baseball team]
6. My Question/Comment (1200-character limit)
7. Email Address
8-9. I agree with House Rules and Privacy Policy (must be checked)
10. I’d like to receive emails about Murakami and his works in the future (warning, they’ll be in Japanese)
To send click on the big black button on the bottom.

If you have any other questions let me know!

Against Renting out the Sistine Chapel to Porsche

Posted October 18, 2014 by jsmyth
Categories: Art, Religion

Tags:

Story: http://news.artnet.com/in-brief/rent-the-sistine-chapel-for-your-next-party-136198

I understand the Pope’s good intentions, and of course I believe people should give everything they can to the poor. But to me is a question of access to sacred spaces. It’s similar to the Luke 26:6-13 (“The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me”) controversy.

My objection isn’t related to fresco wear from nighttime vieweing–no matter how much hot air can Porsche executives emit, they won’t have the same effect as the prodigious numbers of people ‘shuffling’ through in daytime hours.

We’re likely wearing down the Chapel with all those people. But the totally open-doors policy the Church has taken with the place is beautiful. What is the Sistine Chapel? It’s a depiction of the whole progression of God’s relationship with mankind, of our beginnings and our end, painted at great personal cost by one of the greatest artists the West has ever known, in the center of the church founded by Christ to save mankind, and all you need to come inside and see it is to be a human being yourself. (And 8-16 euros for maintenance.)

Once you make access to this sacred space contingent on how much money you offer, it becomes something less than universal. It becomes just like everywhere else, where being a famous corporation and having a ton of money gets you farther in life. It’d be one thing if the Pope were using the money as a lure to make a full-court-press to the save the souls of all 40 tourists while they were in his house, but from this is being billed as a non-religious function, with a concert and a gala dinner, and already people are interpreting participation in it as a status symbol. I know the Vatican was used for much worse things back in the Renaissance itself but let’s not hold ourselves to such low standards. To me, the Sistine Chapel and other sacred art should be freely given and not for sale.

Judicial independence is the basis of Hong Kong’s economic value

Posted October 2, 2014 by jsmyth
Categories: Business, China, Politics

Tags:

This is my translation of the first half of this post by chenglap on a Taiwanese forum. I think it’s a strong rebuttal to the argument (which many people share) that HKers should throw all their effort into making money and not get involved in politics.

You misunderstand. The importance of Hong Kong, when you come down to it, isn’t its substantive “economy”; it’s the liquidity of transactions there. Hong Kong is indeed a major economic city, but not for economic reasons: for political ones. Not even Hong Kongers themselves understand this. Hong Kongers commonly believe their value, and the reason they’re rich, comes from their understanding of economics and how to do business. On the contrary, Hong Kongers don’t really understand economics, and something else is the foundation of Hong Kong’s value: Hong Kong’s independence.

If you keep your eyes open, you’ll discover that all Western systems separate Hong Kong and China and treat them differently. Obviously China cares a lot about this, so it always demands that the word “China” be appended to the name “Hong Kong.” You won’t see them doing that with Shanghai or Shenzhen.

I’m not saying Hong Kong is an independent nation. I’m saying Hong Kong’s value is in its independence in external affairs, toward the world outside the ethnic Chinese community, that is, in the eyes of the world.

To become a financial center, having a big economy is just an entry ticket. Global credibility is the core question. To put it bluntly, it’s a question of how chaotic local governance is. Some places produce oil and diamonds and are very wealthy, but that doesn’t mean they can become economic centers. If you don’t have a government and legal system that meets international standards and is globally recognized, you simply have no way to guarantee the safety of the assets kept in your city.

Hong Kong is trusted because its systems are all independent from the People’s Republic of China. It has an independent currency and independent financial system. It follows the UNCLOS. It has a different judicial system than mainland China, one with the same source as the U.S. and U.K. It basically preserves separation of powers, so the executive cannot control judges’ legal decisions. It has a citizens’ jury system, lawyers, and a legal system that are all recognized by countries following the U.S.-U.K. framework.

Hence, companies are willing to line up and take a number to put their assets in Hong Kong, and extend credit there, -not- because Hong Kong has a “good economy”, but because they believe that Hong Kong will protect these things. The courts are the defender of everything. No matter how good the economy is, if the government can seize your assets at will there, and the courts that are supposed to defend you are on the government’s side as well, then that place is a “paradise of risk” and can never become a financial center. Finance is built on credibility.

Unless East China undergoes major governmental change, Shanghai will never have the conditions of a true financial center, no matter how much it develops. It won’t have its own currency, its own financial network, its own laws, nor credibility, because its credibility is equivalent to the People’s Republic of China’s. Chinese judges are appointed by the Chinese government. They don’t have independence. Foreign businesses that have business disputes in China with Chinese businesses do not believe that the courts there will protect them.

If Shanghai’s legal system cannot regulate the government, and the government can do whatever it wants there, independent credibility cannot be built there.

When Shenzhen was made a Special Economic Zone, the architects considered this point and thought about establishing a “Shenzhen Dollar”, and midway through seemed to want to strengthen the area’s autonomy as well. This is because they realized that the trust placed in Hong Kong stemmed from its autonomy, and from the government not being able to do whatever it wants there. However, Shenzhen was unable to win these rights. Hong Kong has the Internet domain .hk, and Taiwan has .tw, but could Shenzhen have .sz? Sadly, no; that’s Swaziland.

Through investment in industry and cheap labor, these cities can develop better economies than Hong Kong and have higher commodity prices, but how could they build independent credibility or a financial system that isn’t controlled by the government? How would they create an independent judiciary? It’s not that Shanghainese and Shenzhenese aren’t as hardworking or talented as Hong Kongers; they are, actually. But the systems that have already been established there stem from political issues and their issues cannot be resolved simply by making more money.

Outsiders don’t believe in Chinese Hong Kong’s economy; they believe in its credibility. Obviously, many often say that if you have strong fists you don’t need to defend your credibility. Yes, you could then shout at your people that you can do whatever you want and they can’t stop it, but foreigners won’t go for that. The business environment would be like a casino where you could win money easily but couldn’t leave with your winnings.

The Joy Luck Club

Posted September 13, 2014 by jsmyth
Categories: Uncategorized

Just finished this and want to talk to you all about it. Get your thoughts together and meet me in the comments.

別誤會這本書的標題,它其實是個苦瓜。可是,苦瓜也是健康的。

I’m glad I read it. No book should be made The Definitive Story Of An Entire Race like this was made out to be in the ’90s (“ok ok you guys can have ONE book in the canon!” see also The House on Mango Street), but the stories it had to tell were certainly worth passing on and hearing.

The title is what tricked me into not reading this for so many years; I thought it’d taste like a mooncake. Nope. It was a bitter melon. The suffering was affecting me that reading a book about the Chinese Communist Party consistuted a halftime break. But bitter melons are healthy, and I eat them a lot, and I needed to eat this once since I’ll be a future ABC parent myself.

My favorite story was “The Red Candle”. I know the passage of cultural memory is the stated theme but the battle against patriarchy was where the real meat was. The characters take a lot of shit and close their arcs when they learn how to fight back against it. Besides the clueless white husbands, the naive boys and wicked old male and female power-abusing antagonists in China blended together so well they gave the impression the Japanese were merely the latest and biggest problem for a profoundly unhealthy society. (Putting more wind in the sails of my antipathy toward the Chinese ruling class, I might add.) In this book belief in the existence and power of ghosts is seemingly the only effective tool the weak have against the strong.”There’s so much suffering in this book,” I said. “That’s China,” Jean replied.”In the end she got back at them,” I said. “By dying,” Jean replied.

All the mother protagonists were World War II immigrants, and I thought more than once of how different they were from the highly educated, very filtered East Asian migrant population the US allowed in the decades afterward. Immigrants from Taiwan, for example, are more often than not privileged, not escapees. Anyway, those who ran away from suffering to the US came emotionally wounded and the unintentional effects of that on parenting are pretty clear in my opinion.

American and Chinese culture are set up as foils. Interestingly enough, the Chinese Culture defined here with flourishes of folk tales, feng shui, and the search for symbolism in the mundane has receded greatly since then not only in the States but also here in Taiwan and presumably in China as well as science and data have increased their influence. But if the redeeming power of ghosts leaves China what can replace it?

First Falun Gong, and now Christianity, it seems. In fact an honest portrayal of Chinese Christianity in America is what was really missing from the Joy Luck tapestry in my opinion. The characters are preoccupied with Eastern Culture VS Western Culture when the solution is to fulfill the best of both. However, contemporary Christian culture, on both sides of the Pacific, is still too westernized to make this avenue clear for many.

Anyway, the book settles on Family as The Answer and of course that’s a massive part of life that gives us a lot of joy and deserves more credit. It’s not Everything but it’s so much that I was moved to tears by the ending and enough to make for a satisfying read. Now let me know what you think.

The Name of the Rose

Posted September 3, 2014 by jsmyth
Categories: Literature, Religion

Tags:

The delightful meta-irony of this book is that it depicts medieval monks laboring to pass on the written memories of an ancient culture, just like Umberto Eco himself did by writing this. The Name of the Rose is the kind of rediscovery of lost knowledge for which its own protagonists are yearning, and what is unearthed is the importance and relevance of medieval thinkers.

The exciting abbey murder mystery is the story’s engine, and I’m not going to spoil it for you. Instead of giving a play-by-play of the travails of Ye Olde Holmes and Watson and their groundbreaking scientific method, I’ll get philosophical, just like the author does for the majority of the pages (consider yourself warned).

A Game of Thrones has sparked a positive reassessment of medieval people’s intelligence, but our popular imagination of the era is still perhaps best captured by the video of Men Without Hats’ “The Safety Dance”. Hence Eco’s portrayal of an abbeyful of intelligent people dedicated to thought, and of continent-wide intellectual debates moderated but also censored by great powers with their own selfish ends, is exhilarating.

It is commonly believed that the West as a whole fell from the Roman Empire into darkness and then the Catholic Church kept them there. It’s true that much knowledge was destroyed and lost over the years of war and economic disruption that ended the western empire, and many Catholic leaders failed, but it’s forgotten that the educated Romans we admire were always a minuscule percentage of the people in Europe. Even Rome itself was full of unschooled slaves, and the infamous superstitions of medieval people preceded Christianity. Meanwhile, the Church, while conservative, also safeguarded knowledge and provided education to all on a scale unlike any institution that preceded it, while also using its moral authority to protect anti-establishment liberals like the Franciscans.

Let’s look at three major debate subjects of the story—heresy, poverty, and the Book of Revelation—and their relevance to today.

Heresy: As long as there are organizations that uphold certain values, there will be inquisitions, i.e. “either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” Eco provides us a valuable resource by helping us see how inquisitors thought and worked. Their interest in guilt by association, for example, reminded me of political articles like “X is connected to the Koch Brothers and thus is evil!” These sections must have been especially poignant in 1980, when the Cold War was still being fought and the Red Scare was only a few years back in the rear-view mirror.

Even more important than that, however, is the depiction of how people become heretics. Some are true apostates with a warped sense of divine mission (ISIS leaders), but others are merely lashing out at a society that has failed them by joining the nearest utopian anti-establishment organization they can find (the Taiping Rebellion). Hence crushing a heretical movement, either intellectually or physically, is not enough to prevent a reprise; institutions must also reform themselves to enfranchise the marginalized and keep them from becoming desperate.

Eco is also firm in his refutation of fanaticism, saying both the inquisitors and true heretics are guilty of the same sins, of wanting to burn the world down and trample people for their convictions. This warning was proved true in the 20th century just as it was in the 14th.

Poverty: Was Jesus poor? Did He even own possessions? At the time of this story there was a massive debate on this subject, which had great implications for how society should be organized and how secular rulers and the Church should conduct themselves. The Pope himself was on the wrong side, as several of the Franciscans point out; one character even says the Pope is the Antichrist, putting to rest any misconception you may have of the expansiveness of papal infallibility. (The politically motivated Papal Schism was not far away.) Ubertino’s disquisition on the nature of property is relevant today, and the dynamics of the debate between have-nots and their ideals holding forth against the haves and their control of the use of force is sadly familiar. It seems clear the inequality of medieval times stemmed not from ignorance of economic principles but rather from the rich’s desire to keep things as they were in order to stay on top. True Christians have always been threatened.

Revelation: After reading The Name of the Rose, I appreciated more than ever how important it was that the Bible contain the Apocalypse of St. John. It is not only comfort for the afflicted but also a scriptural safeguard against triumphalism and blind obedience to authority. Time and time again Eco’s characters refer to it to explain the suffering of the current times and to imply the authorities with whom they disagree are false prophets. Because Revelation is so easily read as prophecy, it also warns church leaders that history will not steadily and peacefully progress forward, but may instead be convulsed and wrecked by evildoers. Because it begins with admonitions to churches, it provides a platform for self-criticism.

Not to mention that on the artistic and literary side, the Book of Revelation gave religious license to surrealism that reverberates today.

The book’s apocalyptic frame, established very early by a vision by the narrator, Adso—who is himself a parallel of John in both the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation—is a fitting metaphor for the emerging intellectual battle between the Aristotelians the Church condoned by recognizing the truth of St. Thomas Aquinas’s theology and the Platonists to preserving beautiful ideals and respect for authority. The reasons for resistance to the new school of thought and fear of its consequences are amply explained and personified.

Eco upholds the values we now call modern but, crucially, also presents the point of view of the losing intellectual side, a modern parallel to the Catholic monks preserving the works of Muslim writers. This is a salvo against the tragedy of forgetting. That Western Europe had an officially protected and apolitical group preserving thought is a godsend, considering the much greater degree of historical and literary censorship in regions like China.

While showing characters that think like us (and why official historians would censor them from memory), Eco also respectfully portrays their cultural differences, so by reading this we can enrich our own knowledge of the palette of human experience. For example, he says of one scene: “I was not so much interested in ___ itself as I was to describe how a young monk would experience ___ through his cultural sensibility. So I made a collage of at least fifty different texts of mystics describing their ecstasies, together with excerpts from the Song of Songs. In the entire two pages that describe ____, there is hardly a single word of mine. Adso can only understand ____ through the lens of the culture he has absorbed. This is an instance of style, as I define it.”

This book is now inextricably linked to The Da Vinci Code. It’s a sad irony, as The Name of the Rose is roughly a million times better and more respectful of history. Eco himself has had a laugh about it: “The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.” The Name of the Rose doesn’t flow from scene to scene in the same way, but it doesn’t make any inventions that contradict with the historical record; it teaches about the past rather than heavy-handedly retrofitting the past to the present; and it encourages open-mindedness and skepticism rather than Gnosticism and faith in conspiracy theories.

So if you’re interested in the West of the 14th century, read this, and if you like a good mystery, even better.

And if you’ve already read this and want more fiction on monks preserving learning, check out A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller and “The Library of Babylon” by Jorge Luis Borges.

Hanzawa Naoki

Posted September 1, 2014 by jsmyth
Categories: Business, Japan, Movies and TV

Tags: , ,

半沢直樹

半沢直樹 HANZAWA NAOKI, the most popular live-action Japanese drama in years, is well worth watching, and its roaring success there and elsewhere is indicative of a major problem in the nations’ corporate culture.

Hanzawa is a brilliant, hardworking, charismatic, successful banker with a loving, beautiful, and sacrificially supportive wife and cute kid. He does due diligence and then gives both his support and friendship to the small businesses he deems promising (this alone makes him a kind of unicorn in Japanese banking). No amount of overtime is too much for him. And he’s out for revenge.

His top target is the banker who years ago induced his father to commit suicide by denying his small business a loan extension. He wants to overcome this man and reform the bank for which he works. By the end of the first episode, however, Hanzawa is fighting for his career, as corrupt superiors who have cheated the company for personal gain frame him and put him on the chopping block.

A typically meek Japanese worker would take the fall. In the words of one character, in Japanese corporations the superiors take the credit for the subordinates’ successes, and the subordinates take the blame for the superiors’ failures. Hanzawa is different, though. He fights ruthlessly and swears to his enemies that he’ll get a double helping of vengeance for their wrongs (BAIGAESHI DA!). Sakai Masato nails the combination of niceness and scariness required for this starring role.

It’s tense watching. Hearing the theme song again would give me a myocardial infarction. The creators, like the author of the original novels, clearly find catharsis in showing how personal advancement and protection of the organization have long come before doing the right thing at Japan, Inc. and THAT is why the country has fallen. Some of Hanzawa’s bosses are acid. The others are base. Yet the love of Hanzawa’s wife and the loyalty of his friends and subordinates keep him (and you) believing in people enough to carry on.

I’ve had plenty of time to calm down since finishing the series (the ending wasn’t just a cliffhanger, it was like falling off a cliff; a sequel is certain to follow some day) and what most sticks with me is the creators’ passion for reform. I respect Ikeido Jun for becoming so well-versed in business (he worked for a bank for years), yet still preserving his idealism enough to leave his company at 32 to write crusading books like this. He made it to the biggest possible public stage. HANZAWA NAOKI is likely too Eastern to ever come to the U.S. but you can still take some inspiration from its existence.


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